ATHENS, Ga. -- Having played at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College -- a hotbed of junior college football talent -- Kennar Johnson has already faced comparable levels of speed and athleticism to he will see in the SEC.
“The junior college league that I played in [the Mississippi Association of Community and Junior Colleges], they called it the SEC of junior college,” said Johnson, one of five juco players who joined Georgia’s roster this season. “You’ve got a lot of those guys who go to the SEC and are SEC players in football, they just can’t make it out of high school [academically]. So I’m seeing it. … It’s just maybe one level higher than what I saw.”
Rarely is it the physical side of the sport that impedes a junior college transfer’s progress once he arrives at Georgia, however. The biggest obstacles are picking up the complexities of the Bulldogs’ offensive or defensive schemes and adapting to the more regimented schedule that accompanies life inside a big-time football program.
As with most of their predecessors, that’s how Georgia’s newest juco transfers see it.
“I get frustrated all the time,” admitted Toby Johnson, who as the No. 4 prospect in ESPN’s Junior College 100 was the highest-rated of Georgia’s five juco signees. “I’m just going to get better every day in meetings and stuff. I’m the type of player, I’ve got to walk through it.”
The most productive junior college transfer of Mark Richt’s Georgia tenure, nose guard John Jenkins, encountered the same issues during the previous two seasons in Athens. He struggled after arriving in 2011 before eventually picking up the scheme and enjoying a strong second half of the season. He was good enough last fall to become a third-round pick in this year’s NFL draft.
But those first few weeks and months on campus can be a shock to the system following a less demanding experience in junior college.
“In juco, we didn’t do much,” said Shaquille Fluker, a big-hitting safety from East Mississippi Community College. “Because here it’s like we’re starting in the morning and work out through all the day. … Here, they’ve got our whole day [scheduled].”
Receiver Jonathon Rumph was the first member of the group to face that culture shock, having arrived on campus in January and participated in the Bulldogs’ spring practice.
Although the 6-foot-5 Rumph was one of the stars of Georgia’s spring game, offensive coordinator Mike Bobo was critical of Rumph’s overall spring performance. After a few months on campus and a bit more time to refine his technique, however, Rumph has Bobo singing a different tune today.
“His improvement from the spring is a big jump,” Bobo said Sunday. “He’s smoothing out. He’s still overall a little bit learning the offense, learning how to run routes, and then at the same time using his size. But I know going into the spring game, he really didn’t make any plays for us in practice and made a couple of those in the spring game. But now he’s made some plays in fall practice, which is good to see.”
It’s on the defensive side where Georgia will be especially reliant on the former juco players, though. Along with the two Johnsons and Fluker, nose guard Chris Mayes could also play an important role on a defense that has a number of holes to fill after losing 12 key players from last season.
Their physical maturity was one factor in Georgia’s pursuing them as recruits, as an older player might be better prepared than a true freshman to contribute immediately. In addition, signing five juco players -- the most for a single signing class in Richt’s UGA tenure -- was part of a numbers game.
Georgia’s 33-man class was also the largest overall in Richt’s career, so signing a group composed solely of high schoolers would have created a glut of freshmen on the roster. The coaching staff wanted a bit more balance than that.
“If you take all freshmen, then four years from now you’re going to be in a similar situation,” defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said. “So by taking a couple of junior college guys, I think it balances out your class with some older guys and new guys. Sometimes older guys have a little more experience, maturity and things like that. They’ve all had to catch up with the system.”
Georgia dealt with a severe shortage of scholarship players over the last couple of seasons thanks to various forms of roster attrition, so the huge signing class helped the Bulldogs finally get back around the NCAA’s 85-man roster limit.
The juco transfers and many of their signing class mates are sure to play right away -- and even if they don’t start, simply having them on the roster is a pleasant change for Richt’s staff because of the competition they bring to their respective positions.
“We always look and say, ‘All right, of all the players that are available to recruit, what combination of players gives us the best chance to win?’ ” Grantham said. “There’s nothing that says when you sign that guy, it always has to be that he’s going to be the lockdown starter. It could be to provide depth. It’s based upon how they play and how they produce, but at least you have numbers at the position. That’s the big thing.”
SLOW STARTS FOR JUCO ADDITIONS
Georgia signed five junior college players this year -- the most of any season since Mark Richt became the Bulldogs’ coach in 2001. Here’s a look at how Georgia’s previous juco transfers under Richt performed in their first seasons on campus.
OL Mark Beard: Started two games at left tackle and ranked among top reserves on offensive line.
NG John Jenkins: Started seven games and finished with 28 tackles, six tackles for a loss and three sacks.
S Jakar Hamilton: Started five games and made 27 tackles. Intercepted a pass in opener against Louisiana-Lafayette and returned it 17 yards for a touchdown.
K Brandon Bogotay: Kicked off twice while serving as Blair Walsh’s backup.
LB Akeem Hebron: Returned to team after one-year hiatus at Georgia Military College. Recorded one tackle in six games as a reserve linebacker.
OG Scott Haverkamp: Started the first three games and appeared in seven games before leaving the team.
DT Corvey Irvin: Recorded 13 tackles and two tackles for a loss in 13 games as a reserve defensive lineman.
OT Vince Vance: Appeared in 11 games as a reserve offensive lineman.
DE Jarius Wynn: Recorded nine tackles, one tackle for a loss and one sack in 13 games as a reserve defensive end.
DE Nic Clemons: Recorded three tackles in five games as a reserve defensive lineman.
OT Kareem Marshall: Started five games at offensive tackle.
CB Brandon Williams: Made 13 tackles and broke up three tackles in 10 games as a reserve defensive back.